Refugee Simulation brings plight of refugees close to home

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News


On a cold, drizzly Sunday afternoon, Iowa Wesleyan University students and community members left their warm homes and became refugees for two hours, struggling to stay together as a family, overcoming injuries and crossing the border to leave their home and enter a safe country.

Despite the snow, approximately 50 people participated in the Refugee Simulation at Iowa Wesleyan University (IW) in the Social Hall on April 15. The simulation was organized by students in IW professor Joy Lapp?s Social Justice and Service class, with any proceeds going to benefit Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON).

As the simulation got underway, participants were asked to turn off their cellphones because being able to check their phone would be an escape from the experience. All participants were given ?SOS? cards, which allowed them to pull out of the simulation at any time if it got too intense.

To add to the discomfort of the activity, participants were separated from the people they arrived with and put into new family groups. Everyone was given a different colored piece of cloth that symbolized their new family unit and would later act as a blindfold.

Sitting down with their new acquaintances, participants chose a family name, discussed their family dynamic (who were the grandparents, father, mother or children), and were given an explanation of why they were fleeing their home country for freedom.

As one of the families got to know each other, they got to know that the father was a 40-year-old merchant whose brother was killed because of his religion. The family was fleeing north for religious freedom. Other families were fleeing for civil war and other injustices they faced at home.

The ?Andersen?s,? for example, were fleeing their home land because civil war was ravishing their country. However, the father had to stay behind to farm as the rest of the family moved south. The very religious family spoke the dialect of their region, but not the national language of their country, making it more difficult to travel.

Once the groups completed the paperwork designating their family name and identity, the refugees were put in crisis. Asked to put on their blindfolds, the noise of bombs falling, buildings crashing and loud whistles created chaos and panic in the room.

Once the airplanes finished ?attacking,? families had been separated and were told to find each other ? blindfolded. People yelled out their family name and colors, moving their hands through the air like they were swimming as to not run into anyone or anything.

Event organizers yelled at participants, ?Move faster, move faster.?

While some families successfully located their family members, two people were left separated from the rest of their group.

Linda Widner later explained that while she and Gerry Klopfenstein returned to ?home base,? the rest of the family regrouped elsewhere. ?That surprised me,? Widner said. ?It?s confusion. We didn?t have a plan if we got separated.?

?I was begging, ?Safety, safety,?? Widner added, saying that the loud noise and the yelling were stressful.

Once family units were together again, a second round of paperwork ensued, asking participants to describe the emotions they felt while being blindfolded and separated. People murmured that they felt alarmed, lost, hopeless, confused and scared.

?Obviously we can?t do what refugees actually go through, but attempting to simulate difficulties, confusion and language barriers, it?s an important experience for people to understand what it means to be a refugee and get to a safe place,? Jeff Fager said.

Another whistle blew, ordering everyone to move to the front of the room in their family groups. This time, they were given cards that read the fate of one of their family members. In each family, one of them had suffered an accident in the bombing that left them with a handicap. For example, in one family, one of the parents went into psychological shock during the escape and was no longer able to take care of anything.

Other families suffered broken ankles, which family members had to help them hobble on throughout the rest of the simulation.

Exhausted by the traumatic journey and looking for shelter, participants were ordered to consider their family members handicap as they moved into shelter for the night. Like cattle, families were ushered into one corner of the Social Hall. As they sat together, no further instructions were given.

?I?m just supposed to stare at them,? one of the student event organizers whispered.

Event organizers stared down participants for five minutes. Five minutes turned into 10 minutes. Participants got restless as they sat on the floor, cramped together, anxious about what awaited them next.

Finally, a whistle interrupted the stillness. It was time for the refugees to make their way to the border.

?Get up. Go to the hall,? event organizers began shouting. ?Let?s go. Come on. That means you.?

One organizer even kicked at a participant like they were cattle. ?You guys are taking too much time,? he called after them.

?I?m definitely feeling scared,? IW student Delaney Vanness said. ?In class, we?re talking a lot about refugees. It makes sense, but I didn?t think we?d have to go through obstacles like this to get where we are.?

At the border, paperwork, which was written in gibberish to signify a language refugees couldn?t read, was handed out. Participants deduced that the paperwork was asking for the names and ages of their family members.

?Nobody wants to come help us,? one confused participant said as she waived the paperwork in the air.

?They have overcome difficulties, have finally reached the border, are hungry, sick, thirsty and exhausted and want a place to sleep without fear,? Lapp explained to frustrated participants.

Once families had struggled to fill out the papers needed for them to cross the border, they made their way through a narrow corridor where border control awaited them.

?Is your paperwork completed?? Lapp shouted as they approached the border. Unsatisfied with one family?s paperwork, she sent them back to the beginning.

?Come on, man, we got to get into this country,? one participant was heard saying.

The border was a coat rack with pop cans hung underneath it. If participants touched the pop cans while trying to cross under, they were sent back. Three people stood on the other side of the entrance, yelling in different languages (one organizer actually yelled Spanish to participants), and telling them their paperwork was not sufficiently completed.

Even after making it past the border, some families were refused entry and sent back, going through the ordeal for a second, third and possibly fourth time.

?It took us three times to get through,? Christine Bein said.

Other families were separated at the border wall and had to choose whether to continue without everyone and go it alone.

Safely in the new country, Seaniece Edwards pondered the ordeal she had just experienced. ?I think they?re getting the job done as far as the experience of how refugees feel,? she said. ?How angry, hurt and frustrated they must be.?

While some event organizers were laughing, and some participants were trying to lighten the mood through lighthearted conversation, Monica Anaya was solemn. ?It is realistic,? she said. ?My parents are from Mexico. They experienced crossing the border.

?It?s sad some people think it?s funny,? Anaya continued. ?The truth is it hurts. We should be more happy we passed (across the border).?

Once everyone had crossed the border, participants were told they could choose supplies they needed. After spending five minutes thinking through the list of possible supplies they could receive, they were told all the supplies were depleted and all they would receive was water.

Even that was given to them in small paper cups, barely enough for three sips of water for each family member. After receiving the water, some participants were skeptical.

?Can we drink the water? Is this water sanitary?? some were heard asking.

Joanne McCabe, who is a member of Iowa Welcomes Its Immigrant Neighbors (Iowa WINS), was grateful to the experience for bringing to life what she already knew.

?I feel a lot more sympathy and sadness,? McCabe said. ?In a way, we were having fun. At the same time, something serious is underneath it. There?s not a lot else you can do (for refugees) except try to understand and donate money.?